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The San Francisco JAZZ Center

Jazz on the Corner

by DAVID YEARSLEY

The SF JAZZ Center opened its doors little more than a year ago in San Francisco’s once seedy Hayes Valley, a place now bustling with boutiques and restaurants. Come evening and concert time, there are still a few homeless people to be encountered if one opts for free on-street parking and then ventures a few blocks on foot to the culinary or cultural destination of your choice.

But even if the district feels increasingly sanitized, the remnants of a gritty past shadow the Jazz Center. The derelict Newton J. Tharp Commercial School stands directly across Franklin Street.  This architectural landmark of the late nineteenth century was rendered unsafe by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, but can’t be knocked down by developers while protected by its landmark status. The tan brick facade and understated Italianate ornaments retain their original elegance, but the windows have been vandalized, so that the impression the building gives is like that of a dapper gentleman with his teeth knocked out. Making a virtue of this dilapidation, the Jazz Center has covered the windows with photographic banners of great jazz musicians: Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday, and others. These larger than life images flap gently in the breeze like ghosts looking out from a haunted house—or perhaps like saints offering their posthumous blessing over the new place for jazz across the street, the kind of luxurious musical home they never enjoyed in their lifetimes.

Unbashful about boasting its status as the only freestanding, purpose-built structure for jazz in the United States, SF JAZZ is a two-story box of matte grey steel and glass—a younger, leaner cousin of the behemoths of high culture just down the street. Davies Symphony Hall and the venerable War Memorial Opera House both turn their backs on the newcomer. These titans of the European performing arts face towards the secular basilica of City Hall, whose dome brings to mind St. Peter’s in Rome—opulent, expensive, distant. The final approach to opera houses and symphony halls was—and still generally is—up broad stairs that reinforce the ritual sense that one is ascending towards the altar of a temple. It’s true that the entrance to Davies, a building of dubious aesthetic merits completed in 1980, is at street level beneath a reverential overhang, but the building itself does more than its fair share of looming. Altogether San Francisco’s imposing architectural ensemble of cultural and political power reinforces the notion that an outing to the opera or symphony is akin to a religious pilgrimage, and not just because the stress on the wallet can seem like a crippling tithe.

The difference between the jazz space and the opera has not simply to do with cultural prestige, but with scale: the symphony and opera each seat around 3,000 people, while the jazz center’s main auditorium, named after the late co-founder of Oracle, Robert Miner, holds about 500.

Designed by San Francisco’s Mark Cavagnero Associates, a firm that specializes in public projects devoted to the arts, the SF JAZZ Center enjoys street life in a way that its operatic and symphonic relatives do not—greeting the passers-by through doors that open directly onto the busy sidewalk. Whereas those classical venues take up massive chunks of public real estate, the Jazz Center is—like the title of an oft-maligned Miles Davis album from the early Seventies—On the Corner.

This relation to foot traffic is not unlike that of the jazz clubs of yore. The lobby itself is just off the street, as is the slender bar. The center’s second performing space, the Joe Henderson Lab named after the tenor saxophone great and long-time resident of San Francisco who died in 2001, is practically on the sidewalk, separated from it by glass windows that are sufficiently soundproof to keep the thunder of the city traffic out. Some of the greatest jazz musicians of our time become virtual street performers, as pedestrians are greeted by the unexpected sight—but not the sound—of the likes of homegrown talent Joshua Redman or even Herbie Hancock playing before their very eyes a few feet away. This is not only a tremendous advertisement for the goings-on in the center, but it also sends the message that the music has not lost its connection to the urban fabric from which it was originally cut. I’d estimate the audience space in the lab at about one hundred—a size suggesting an intimate club of modern sleekness, acoustical excellence, but without the hubbub of a bar and bathroom intruding on the music-making.

The lab is adjacent to the foyer with its obligatory, but nonetheless understated, gift counter offering recordings, books, and photographs. You won’t find Duke Ellington snow globes here.  SF JAZZ not only supports music but has also named its first poet laureate, Ishmael Reed and a photographer laureate, Jim Goldberg. The entrance to the Miner Auditorium across the foyer can be gained in a few steps on the same level. Although the main concert space has no windows and therefore no direct visual connection to the sidewalk, the outside world follows the concertgoer inside: instead of lofty detachment from the city one enjoys a feeling of integration.

A staircase in the foyer leads to a second floor entrance to the auditorium, but the urban presence accompanying even concertgoers entering from above is reinforced by murals by artist Sandow Birk. Painted on square tiles in a gentle blue that meshes well with the muted interior of the building, “Jazz and the City” and its pendant “Jazz and the Nation” depict famed clubs from San Francisco and New York, as well as points in between. If you need a breath of fresh air and want to take stock of the street below, a small corner balcony nearby lets you step out into the cool San Francisco night.

Though it seats more than 500, the Miner Auditorium retains an intimate atmosphere. Jazz is for the most part a form of chamber music, and this venue’s size is ideal for small ensembles. Although many great jazz concerts, most famously Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s appearance at Massey Hall in Toronto in 1953, have taken place in cavernous spaces, the best venues have the proportion and graciousness of the Miner Auditorium.

Real money rained down that the project should flourish: permanence and prestige come at a considerable cost. With a $65 million dollar price tag, the Center exudes quality and careful design in every corner and detail, from the auditorium chair drinkholders—first I’ve ever encountered in a concert hall—to the wall in the foyer listing the donors not in neat rows but in a kind of asymmetrical visual syncopation that suggests the rhythmic complexity that is one of the hallmarks of jazz.

Like the exterior of the building, the auditorium projects a modern reserve, expensive and cool. Its acoustic success has not only to do with the pleasing size but its proportion—oblong rather than square with the bandstand at the midpoint of the long side of the rectangle so that all seats in the house seem at close quarters with the performers. In back and to the side of the rows near the stage, the seats are raked steeply, further benefiting the sightlines and proximity to the musical action.  There is even a single row of seats running high above the back of stage; from this modern version of a royal box the highest-paying patrons can see best—and best be seen.

Over its first year SF Jazz’s program has been rich and diverse, ranging from retrospective to avant-garde, and including musicians from far-flung traditions. Indeed, the show that brought me to the Miner Auditorium last month was Roseanne Cash and her band performing mostly music from her recent album, The River and the Thread, an exploration of the Mississippi Delta and her own family’s history in Arkansas. Cash’s is an authentic voice, both in the content of her lyrics and her delivery of them. Her humanity and warmth are evident even after they pass through the freeze filter of amplified reverb that distance the music and musicians from the audience. Needless to say the Miner Auditorium has a state of the art sound system, but the acoustics are are so resonant and clear that I yearned for Cash and her boys to take a cue from her forbears and have the courage to unplug.

In an article that appeared in the New York Times in 1988, the year after he co-founded the conservatively-oriented jazz program at Lincoln Center in New York, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis bemoaned the now-pervasive programming of jazz festivals dominated by other—in his view lower—forms of music:

“I recently completed a tour of jazz festivals in Europe in which only two out of 10 bands were jazz bands. The promoters of these festivals readily admit most of the music isn’t jazz, but refuse to rename these events ‘music festivals,’ seeing the esthetic elevation that jazz offers. This is esthetic name-dropping, attempting to piggyback on the achievements of others, and duping the public. It’s like a great French chef lending his name, not his skills, to a fast-food restaurant because he knows it’s a popular place to eat.”

A purist would grumble along with Marsalis about having a modern country star such as Cash playing the SF JAZZ center. A realist might counter that the popularity of Ms. Cash fills the seats and helps fund a concert series that includes many tremendous musicians of a more limited popular appeal. But imaginatively conceived and adroitly executed concert halls should always welcome diverse artists of quality, just as the above-mentioned Massey Hall did—from Caruso to Bird. The SF JAZZ Center should remain a world-class urban venue for music of any kind, as long as it has something to say.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com